Friday, July 19, 2024

The First of the Final Goodbyes

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”

With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we’ve reached the final book of the Harry Potter series. To be honest, I barely remember the hype that surrounded it when it came out, but I do remember that I took the book home and finished reading it within the next twenty four hours on minimal sleep. That was, of course, a very different experience to the sort of slow, careful, nit-picky reading necessary for this reread project.

A bit of Self-Reflection

So far, this Reread Project has brought me a lot of joy. It has allowed me to re-invest time and mental capacities into one of my all-time favorite series, to actually think about it and put those thoughts into words, knowing that they’ll be read and reacted to by other people. And the exchange with those people especially has been a constant source of joy for me.

At the same time, there’s a twinge of sadness to it. Rereading the books has also opened my eyes to the series’ flaws and made me feel oddly detached from them. I still love the Harry Potter books, but especially after the mess that was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I do wonder why I love them as much as I do. How much of my affection is simply due to nostalgia? I also wonder whether, at the end of this reread project, I’ll still say that it’s one of the best (Young Adult) series that’s been written so far.

art by kassillus

I’m also wondering whether my affection is keeping me from looking critically at certain aspects of the books that actually do need to be looked at critically. For example, the moral lessons that the series is meant to transport, or the depth and development J. K. Rowling (JKR) allows her characters. I don’t want to become disillusioned with these books; they’ve been my happy place for a very long time. Of course that’s no reason to stop critically looking at these books, especially now, and I’m glad I am doing this project. But it’s difficult to continue loving something as unabashedly as I love(d) Harry Potter when you’ve spent more than a year picking it apart.

There’s also the fact that I continuously feel like I’m not writing about something that I found remarkable when I read it, like I can’t put all the thoughts and feelings I have while reading the books into words. So far, I have a six documents full of notes that are each between three and twenty five pages long each – and I’ve only just started with book seven and already have four pages of notes on that. So, of course I wonder if I’m accidentally leaving out things I originally thought were worth mentioning or discussing.

One specific example of this is the way JKR handles the Chosen One trope in Half-Blood Prince. When I originally read the conversation between Harry and Dumbledore about the prophecy, I had a lot of thoughts about them, but when I wrote “Shortly before the End, everything is Bad”, none of them made it into the actual post. Which is a shame, because as Maidens&Mules pointed out in the comment section, Harry isn’t the Chosen One because he was chosen by destiny or because he is the heir of someone special, but because Voldemort chose him. However, I feel like I can only write about Harry’s status as the Chosen One and how JKR approaches both the trope of The Chosen One and the role of the hero once I’m actually done with the entire series and thus can lay out the entire picture.

A Question of Tone

One of my biggest criticisms of Half-Blood Prince was that JKR tried to find a balance between the light-hearted, school- and romance-focused tone of everyday life at Hogwarts and the atmosphere of a society at war and to convey the sense of “society is going into a terrible direction but I also have to keep living my life” but failed. Her attempts to portray a society at war or in the grip of a terrorist organization worked well at the beginning of the sixth book, partially because of the chapters showing the Muggle Prime Minister and Snape. However, when Harry went back to Hogwarts, both the pacing and atmosphere problems started. The fact that the atmosphere was so distinctly off was especially annoying because the Harry Potter books got progressively darker.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows fits far better into this procession into darkness than its precedessor, which is entirely unsurprising, considering that it’s the final book. The chapter showing the Death Eater meeting sets the tone. Not only does it gives the reader the knowledge that the Ministry is about to fall and that Harry is about to be attacked when he tries to leave Privet Drive, but it also shows us the murder of Charity Burbage. The following chapters in which Harry says goodbye to the Dursleys, fights off the Death Eaters during the Battle of the Seven Potters, and deals with the emotional and physical fallout of that fight, make it clear that the stakes are higher than ever.

Deathly Hallows also reintroduces some lightheartedness through the wedding preparations, social life at the Burrow, and the introduction of the Delacours. Unlike in Half-Blood Prince, however, JKR manages to keep the atmosphere of everyday life under threat that she was likely aiming for in the previous book. Of course the few chapters Harry spends in this state are far shorter than the two-thirds of Half-Blood Prince, which makes it easier to create and uphold a specific literary atmosphere. But I still think that JKR could have pulled it off in the sixth book if she had paced it differently. The fact that JKR can obviously create the atmosphere Half-Blood Prince needed makes the messiness of that book even harder to bear.

A Perfect Mother Figure

I already stated that there are aspects of the books I want to talk about in depth but haven’t so far. One of those aspects is JKR’s portrayal of motherhood and family, especially with regards to the Weasley family and Molly specifically. It’s pretty clear that they’re meant to function as a sort of replacement for the family and, in Molly’s case, the mother Harry lost. They give him presents for his birthday and Christmas, he spends most of his summers with them, and they all try their best to mutually support and care for each other.

And Molly does exactly what mothers are supposedly supposed to do: she is overly worried and protective of Harry, to the point where she almost incapacitates him. Molly has a tendency to disregard the wishes of the people she feels are her children because she thinks she knows best – something that already annoyed me in Order of the Phoenix. That tendency becomes clear again with her disapproval of Fleur and Bill’s relationship and when she forces Charlie to cut his hair. The latter might seem like a minor detail to be annoyed with, but Charlie is supposed to be 25 years old at that point of the books, and Molly still doesn’t respect him enough to just let him wear his hair however he wants. Molly’s tendency to value her own ideas about who and how her children are supposed to be over who they want to be is something that is also very present in her conflicts with the Twins in books four and five.

Much like in Order of the Phoenix, where she insists that Harry should not be told about what the Order does, Molly’s overprotectiveness is implicitly portrayed as being harmful to the Trio and the fight against Voldemort. Because she refuses to accept that Harry, Ron, and Hermione plan to fight instead of going back to Hogwarts, she tries to keep them separated and occupied with wedding preparations while they are at the Burrow. Much like in the fifth book, Molly’s attempts to protect “her” children are actually doing them more harm than good. Although this is something that the Trio explicitly complains about, it’s also a contradiction that is just presented as part of the ‘normal’ mother-child relationship.

art by pembroke

The last aspect is especially interesting because of what it tells us about how good motherhood has been popularly understood. Molly’s overbearing protectiveness is mocked a few times throughout the series by her biological children and occasionally criticized by the text itself, for example when it comes to the twins. However, she is also portrayed as a good or maybe even ideal mother because she acts out of love and concern. Although he feels annoyed by her meddling in Deathly Hallows, Harry understands, accepts, and even sort of forgives her for it. And Molly’s defeat of Bellatrix, a far more experienced and ruthless fighter who killed, among other things, an experienced auror trained by Moody himself—which was explicitly spurned by her protective motherly feelings—validates the idea of her as an ideal mother.

The idealisation of Molly is, of course, part of a larger pattern in the Harry Potter universe, namely the idealization of motherhood itself as a force for good. The most obvious example is Lily, who saves Harry’s life more than once just because she loved him and whose love implicitly also saved him from becoming embittered by the Dursleys abuse. According to the narrative presented, Merope Gaunt surviving, loving her son and raising him right would have prevented Tom Riddle from becoming Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy’s love for her son ultimately makes her betray Voldemort, allowing Harry to defeat him. Considering the dichotomous and even contradictory role of motherhood in both society – women are supposed to become mothers but simultaneously, mothers are often excluded from public life in many ways – and fiction – mothers as protective and formative, but oftentimes absent and dead, characters – I have no idea whether I think this is a progressive or a shitty portrayal.

Of course, Molly’s role as a mother, both her flaws and my feelings about it, are deeply tied up with the role of the Weasley family itself and JKR’s overall portrayal of family. But, considering how much the relationship to the Weasley family becomes a reason for conflict between Ron and Harry and the reappearance of Percy, I don’t feel like I have finished my thoughts and analysis on this yet.

And A Truly Horrible Family

The first part of Deathly Hallows also contained something that all Harry Potter fans probably wished for when the book first came out: Harry finally saying goodbye to the Dursleys. I genuinely don’t remember the expectations within the fandom when the final book was announced – I was thirteen in 2007 and not at all involved in online or real life fandom spaces – but when I reread it, it felt fairly anticlimatic.

After all, this is the last time the readers see the Dursley family. Considering just how much they made Harry’s life hell, there is a sense that Vernon and Petunia get off too easily. They show, once again, what kind of superficial, egotistical, uncaring, hateful people they are but there is no reaction to it apart from the unsurprised acknowledgment that they are still awful people. Of course, Hestia Jones and Dedalus Diggle express outrage and anger at how negligent Vernon and Petunia are, but Harry quickly plays down the issue. Not caring where he is going when Number 4, Privet Drive is no longer his home is far from the worst thing the Dursleys have done to him.

But ultimately, this sends the message that some people are just always going to be awful and that letting them know how awful they are is a waste of time and energy. While the first one might be true, I don’t think the second is. Expressing disapproval of someone’s behavior is one of the few ways people have of influencing each others’ behavior, after all. Of course the chance that Petunia and Vernon would have changed their behavior after Harry told them that they were awful is somewhere between slim and nonexistent, but even then the sense of catharsis would have made it worth it, in my opinion.

At the same time, I do kind of like what JKR did with Dudley. She made it clear that Harry saving his life did not leave him entirely unaffected and that he was at least partially moving away from his parents’ views without making having him do an unbelievable 180. However, she leaves it open to interpretation how much he can and does actually change. It’s almost the same principle with Draco Malfoy, though with Dudley she makes it clearer that there has been a change in mentality than she does with Draco.

What also bothers me about the last appearance of the Dursleys is that JKR doesn’t bother to actually clearly call what the Dursleys did to Harry abuse. Having Harry outwardly accept Petunia and Vernon’s shittiness is one thing, but having him describe their relationship as one of solid dislike is a massive understatement that, in my opinion, borders on normalization of abuse. It also implies that there was an aspect of mutuality to it that’s just not true.

However, I do like that Vernon and Petunia Dursley are essentially a condemnation of the conformist British middle class. From the very beginning, JKR makes it clear that they care and aspire to nothing but conforming to the status quo, to being and appearing normal and to never standing out. They disdain anything that falls out of said status quo and their picket fence ideal. It’s an attitude that not only stifles progress but allows and justifies all types of abuse. This becomes especially clear with Aunt Marge, who essentially argues that Harry should be beaten until he stops being strange.

The Messy Politics of Political Messiness

One of the main themes of the Harry Potter series has always been the deeply engraved flawedness of the Wizarding community’s political system. Starting in the second book, JKR does her best to make it clear that the Ministry was not to be trusted when Fudge sent Hagrid to prison without a trial. Umbridge’s abuse of Harry, the society-wide smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore, and Ministry’s official stance that Voldemort isn’t back are only the culminations of something that JKR built up over three books.

That’s what makes the resolution the final books offer so frustrating because it ultimately isn’t a resolution. In Half-Blood Prince, JKR makes it clear that although the person in charge is replaced, the problems are ultimately still present. Innocent people are chucked into jail to seem in control of the situation, important information is not made available to the public, and terrible people are left in places of power as long as those places aren’t in the very front row. Scrimgeour’s appearance at the Burrow in Deathly Hallows re-enforces this message as it becomes clear that not only has he not done anything to stop Voldemort’s rise to power, he has instead focused far more on gaining a way of exerting power over Harry and the Order. But in the end, we’re supposed to believe that just replacing the key players in the Ministry with members of the Order made it so that everything was fine again.

Apart from the fact that this is a deeply unsatisfying end to a key theme of the series, there is another issue as well, namely, that the way the Ministry of Magic acts in Half-Blood Prince and until it falls in Deathly Hallows makes very little sense. Scrimgeour’s administration does a number of things while they’re in power: releasing leaflets, arresting Stan Shunpike, creating a new department to prosecute the distribution of fake protective charms, covering up a mass breakout, trying to force Dumbledore and Harry to support the Ministry more, and cleaning up after the Death Eaters. However, none of it actually has any significant positive effect on the fight against Voldemort and some of it makes no sense. Why would the Ministry even cover up a mass breakout from Azkaban after the end of Half-Blood Prince? And why would Scrimgeour put more effort into trying to find out what Dumbledore was getting up to than on prosecuting the Death Eaters, many of whose identities where at least strongly suspected, if not outright known since at least the middle of the fifth book?

My personal impression was that JKR simply didn’t know how to bring this subplot to a good ending. The Ministry needed to continue to be fundamentally useless in the fight against Voldemort to show that the issues with it weren’t a few bad apples but something that was rotten to the core. If the Ministry had made honest efforts to effectively fight Voldemort but been overpowered, this message would have been undercut. However, there is no good Watsonian explanation for the Scrimgeour administration to be acting the way they do, as they’re essentially repeating the mistakes that brought Fudge down, just on a smaller scale – except that he is fundamentally an idiot. And that is not a satisfying explanation, in my opinion.

A Character Study

One aspect that I’ve always loved about the Harry Potter series were the characters that JKR created. Most of them are incredibly memorable and people have developed both long-lasting attachments and strong opinions about almost all of them. But when I reread the Battle of the Seven Potters, I realized that as much as I was touched by the characters’ love for Harry, I didn’t feel a great sense of attachment to most of them, even though I wanted to.

art by bevsi

Reading or thinking about a character that I remember liking and feeling sort of “meh” about them is an experience I’ve had a few times during this reread. Tonks is, sadly enough, another one. While it didn’t really bother me that I couldn’t relate or be attached to Luna, I’m sad that I don’t really have an emotional reaction to Tonks or Mad-Eye Moody or Bill or Kingsley anymore, and I do wonder why that is.

Originally I thought that it might be that I just don’t know that much about them, but at least with Tonks that’s not really true. She’s a character that was introduced two books ago and that probably ranks somewhere between a secondary and a tertiary character, but there’s still enough information about her to conclude that she is a warm, funny, caring, maybe occasionally overly emotional person who genuinely believes in the Order. And while I can say that I like her as a concept and that I’d probably like her as a real person, I don’t actually care about her scenes or have an explicit opinion about her development right now.

Something similar is true about both Mad-Eye and Bill. I do feel like I know enough about them to be able to tell whether I’d like them if I met them in real life, but I don’t have any strong opinions about them as actual characters in the Harry Potter books. I didn’t real feel anything about Mad-Eye dying even though I know that his death fulfills all the criteria to make me sad. Kingsley Shacklebolt is the only character where I do truly feel that I don’t know enough about him to actually judge whether I like him or not.

Funnily enough, I like Fleur quite a bit despite knowing less about her than I do about Tonks. Maybe it’s because I get the impression that JKR wrote Fleur to be unlikeable, selfish, a bit contemptuous of the characters the reader is meant to like, and shallow, and I feel like JKR didn’t do her justice with that.

Still, it’s weird that so many of the characters that I originally had strong emotional reactions to seem to be leaving me quite cold during this reread. And although I’ve been trying to figure out why that is, I haven’t really figured it out yet.

Next time: The Trio goes first to a wedding and then into hiding.

Unless Otherwise Noted, Images Courtesy of Scholastic Publishing

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